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On the Difficulty of Civic Friendship and Unity in an Angry Time

On the necessity of putting away rhetoric and rivalry.

Published onNov 29, 2020
On the Difficulty of Civic Friendship and Unity in an Angry Time

Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln, March 4, 1861, Salted Paper Print, Library of Congress.

On the evening of Saturday, November 7, 2020, President of the United States-elect Joe Biden had this, among other things, to say:

My fellow Americans, the people of this nation have spoken. They have delivered us a clear victory. A convincing victory. A victory for “We the People” . . .

I pledge to be a President who seeks not to divide, but to unify. Who doesn’t see Red and Blue states, but a United States. And who will work with all my heart to win the confidence of the whole people . . .

[T]o those who voted for President Trump, I understand your disappointment tonight. I’ve lost a couple of elections myself. But now, let’s give each other a chance. It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again. To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.

The Bible tells us that to everything there is a season — a time to build, a time to reap, a time to sow. And a time to heal. This is the time to heal in America.

Some of this is the obvious kind of rhetoric which we have long come to expect in the speeches of victorious presidential candidates — indeed, maybe using such rhetoric is exactly part of the calming, “back to normalcy” feeling which Biden wants to project. Of course, we all know that Biden didn’t really receive a “convincing victory,” much less a victory on behalf of a united people. He won at most about 51% of all the votes for president cast, roughly (at the time of this writing, on Sunday, November 15), 78 million votes out of over 151 million. The distracting and undemocratic mess that is the Electoral College can make things seem a little more decisive than they actually are, but rest assured: Biden’s victory emerged from a very divided electorate, not remotely a united one.

Yet there is every reason to assume that Biden, on some level anyway, truly believes in his rhetoric about healing, about seeing and hearing one another again, and ceasing to treat one another as enemies. Should we believe in that possibility too?

It’s not an easy question to answer. For many of us, in many of our workplaces and neighborhoods and churches and families, the evidence of any possibility of unity over these past four years has been slight. Instead, we’ve seen constant argument and mutual incomprehension, with Trump supporters constantly obsessing over fake news and elite disrespect and various conspiracy theories, climaxing in Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the obvious Electoral College vote results and his filing of one frivolous lawsuit after another. As for Biden supporters (or, more broadly, just Trump opponents), we’ve been tearing their hair out (I’m not going to pretend to be neutral here, folks) over what seem to us to be stupid denials of obvious facts, and profoundly irresponsible dismissals of rhetorical practices and procedural norms that have served this country well (or at least mostly so), and which we’re certain would have been, if they’d been committed or disregarded by President Obama a mere five years ago, a source of screaming rage on the part of our Trump-supporting friends and relatives. It’s hard to imagine a “time of healing” in a context like that. More like a time of anger, all the way down.

A couple of weeks before the election I was asked to give a presentation at my university about this broad topic — that is, about compromise, tolerance, accepting differences, working across the aisle, that sort of thing. But in my preparation, I couldn’t get all the angry accusations and assumptions mentioned above out of my mind. I talked with my wife about it at length, and she put a scriptural story into my mind. To her — someone whom, since the killing of George Floyd last summer, has carried an acute sense of disbelief and despair about her country with her almost constantly — Jesus's cleansing of the temple1 is the emblematic story of our moment, and I think she may be right. But what kind of guidance does it provide, if any, when we (or, at least, Christian believers like myself) think about a Savior who called all who aspire to be servants of Him to love one another,2 without reservation?  A Savior whose most loving words, to those who served Him best, was to call them friends?3

Exploring that idea led me to my old friend Michael Austin, now the provost at the University of Evansville in Indiana, who wrote a whole book4 about friendship in the midst of political disagreement. He began his argument in that book by considering Aristotle’s philia politike, or "civic friendship." Drawing on the work of some other scholars, Michael defined it as the fellow-feeling that any self-governing community depends upon as a very particular kind of friendship, one characterized by a sense of both the mutual self-interest which exists within a shared community, as well as a degree of goodwill. He quoted the philosopher Sybil Schwarzenbach, who once wrote:

"Aristotle is not saying that in the just polis all members know each other, are emotionally close, or personally like each other. . . . Political friendship is evidenced, rather . . . in the legal and social norms regarding the treatment of persons in that society, as well as in the willingness of fellow citizens to uphold them.”

Schwarzenbach's point about norms in Aristotle's account of how citizens are to be friends struck me as greatly important. Norms are social and historical constructs, assumptions about and expectations for the community systems within which we live; they are essential components of any social organization which exists over time. It is reasonable, therefore, to see the violation of a norm as a form of betrayal, or an act of injustice: that is, of someone taking advantage of the civic friendship — or, rather, of the historical assumptions we all have regarding what we may expect from others and that which they may expect from us — upon which all of ordinary life in a community requires.

We can all think of examples of politicians violating what many would rightly consider to be crucial constitutional norms. (We have an occupant of the White House continually to do so right now.) But social assumptions and expectations function in our lives beyond the level of party politics. For some, there are norms involving the trustworthiness of the police; for others, there are norms which assume the stability of gender. The fact that there are always subgroups within our national community for whom these and other norms were not only not recognized, but about which it would have been considered the height of naiveté to take seriously is, I came to believe, part of the whole point: a feeling of betrayal doesn't only come from violations of norms, but from the discomfort which a shifting understanding of norms entails as well.

This is now my armchair hypothesis: that one major source of the anger that so many of have been carrying around and seeing in one another, all year long, is that we have constantly had forced before us--thanks to a callous president regularly inventing and condemning enemies, thanks to lock-downs that exacerbated economic difficulties and shut down spaces of social escape, thanks to an omnipresent social media ecosystem which rips context from every story — the fact that the norms held to by one, or some, or all of the different subcommunities of this country (norms about respectful political compromise, about the equal treatment of the races, about the integrity of law enforcement, about the predictability of gender identity, about the functioning of the economy, or even about the place of God in our lives during a time of pandemic) have been, or are being, challenged, upended, revealed to be otherwise than what we believe, or maybe just simply betrayed. And so our anger at — and, sometimes, our hysterical insistence upon defending — the invariably flawed systemic assumptions we thought we knew flows ever stronger.

To be sure, a social media civil war isn't remotely the same as a real one (which, again, as of the moment of this writing, still hasn’t actually broken out). In his book, Michael made use of Abraham Lincoln as well as Aristotle. Focusing on the great call of his First Inaugural Address —"We are not enemies, but friends . . . . We must not be enemies,”5 which President-Elect Biden was obviously borrowing from — Michael looked closely at how Lincoln's choices as a political figure reflected his understanding of civic friendship, something which he called for even in the midst of a level of anger that far exceeds anything we've seen yet this whole, terrible year. Interestingly, he pointed out what Lincoln, to use the terms I sketched out above, pretty explicitly did not think embracing a sense of mutual self-interest and goodwill towards those whom you may fundamentally feel betrayed by requires. He did not think it requires us to deny or hide our deeply held beliefs, even extreme ones. Also, he did not think it requires us to believe that all sides are equally at fault (if there even is a "fault") in the violation or upending or simply the changing of norms and that the best compromise, therefore, will always be found in the mushy middle, as we are so often condescendingly told.

What did Lincoln think civic friendship in the face of the systemic collapse — or at least the feeling of norms collapsing all around you — requires? On Michael's reading, it requires one to operate on the assumption that everyone can change their mind; that no one's position in the midst of the fraught debates all around us is absolute. It also requires us to prioritize fairness — not the abandonment of one's beliefs, but a fairness in the expressing of them, always allowing others to express the same. Most of all, it requires us to be willing to play the long game, to patiently accept the legitimacy of small steps. Patience, incidentally, is one of the key themes of Compassion & Conviction,6 a book some colleagues and I read together with a group of students over the semester as the election approached. At one point the authors — all of whom are long-time activists and pastors in African-American communities — observe that:

Patience is often in shorter supply for the zealous convert to a cause than the long-suffering laborer for justice. It is not usually the most vulnerable who are the most vitriolic, nor is it usually they who have persevered for what they believed who are most bitter. Instead, often the people for whom these issues are primarily emotional are trying to prove their commitment rather than just being committed. Those who have advocated for an issue for a long time, on the other hand, are able to track progress, are respectfully aware of the various points of disagreement, and understand the terrain.

That impassioned call to patience, and Michael's reading of Lincoln, are both powerful, I think. But I can also think of reasons to dissent from them. What if the very idea of “fairness” is part of the norm that appears to have been systematically broken or never consistently applied in the first place? What if cognitive research and social science and long hours of arguing with people on Facebook have proven to you that, actually, people never really do change their minds? Most of all, what if the patient long game which Michael embraces has already been intolerably too long? (Keep in mind here that Martin Luther King, Jr., himself wrote a whole book titled Why We Can't Wait,7 addressing all those annoying calls for civil rights protesters and demonstrators to be "patient.")

I can come up with no easy solution for how one is to deal in a friendly with one's fellow community members when dismay or confusion or consternation or anger over the breakdown of systems and assumptions and norms dominates. So instead I come back to Jesus cleansing the temple — not just overturning tables, but taking a whip and driving those who were collecting and changing money at those tables out into the streets. I have no idea what kind of mental state we are supposed to understand our Savior to have had in this story. Was He sorrowful? Or was He, actually, angry? Angry, perhaps, at the realization that the system of sacrifice under the temple priests and Levites had become so exploitative, that the norms by which poor Jews were given access to temple rites had become so warped, that there was nothing left to do but take direct confrontational action, and literally upend them all? I don't know, and I doubt any believer can know. But believers can and should, at least, recognize that even while the call to love and friendship — to say nothing of the minimal civic application of such — remains, it remains, at least if we include this scriptural story into our understanding of Jesus, in conjunction with both a recognition of the legitimacy of feeling betrayed and a recognition that our responses to perceived violations of or confusions over norms and expectations will not always be eternally passive.

At one point in his wise book (wise in terms of political ethics, certainly; whether it is wise in terms of addressing failed political systems and norms is something that remains to be seen), Michael frames civic friendship as a hope. That, I think, is the only true point I can conclude with. The civic friendship which can exist in a community is fundamentally always going to be an act of faith, a holding onto a "conviction of things not seen."8 We don't know--we can't know, until it actually happens — if the norms and assumptions and expectations whose seeming collapse angers us are final; we don't even know if some of them might not be opening up a window for systemic change that might appropriately be described as providential. In the meantime, so long as this community that we know is still here when we wake up in the morning, the call of Jesus can, I think, be at the very least expressed as a continued hope to be able to treat our fellow community members as friends. As Michael wrote:

We exercise civic friendship, or fail to exercise it, when we decide what kind of society we want to be. We vote on this question every day — occasionally in a formal election but more often through the purchases we make, the people and institutions we choose to associate with, and the things that we give our attention to. No law can force us, and no syllogism can persuade us, to care about other people; only friendship can do that. But when animated by a genuine concern for the well-being of others, we can find ways to make our society more just.

I ended up voting early this year for the very first time, as a way to support an advance voting site that was set up on my campus two weeks before the election (before I even gave the presentation that was the genesis of this whole essay, in fact). So Election Day morning came, and it was the first in my whole adult life that I, political nerd that I am, wasn't at my local polling station early. I felt a need to go down the street a few blocks from where we live anyway, and thank some of the volunteers. They were appreciative of the thanks, but not, it seemed to me, surprised. Election workers, poll observers, really everyone involved in the mechanics of making representative systems work: they may not see themselves as avatars of civic friendship in their commitment to this very ordinary, in many ways very boring work which they do, but, nonetheless, I think they embody exactly the low-level, even humble hope which Michael called us to. Maybe they're personally religious, or maybe they're not, but one way of speaking of the civic conviction which brings them out to volunteer is a kind of civil religion.9 They really must have — as most of us, most of the time, I am confident, similarly have — some kind of faith that people cangovern themselves, and that people like you and me and all of them and all of us can be trusted, whatever the legitimate and even necessary extremities of our different views, to go through the electoral rituals of American democracy, and not just overturn all the tables without cause.

I am haunted by the possibility of that cause, though, and in the wake of this norm-shattering year (in so many ways beyond just the big one elected to the presidency), we all should be properly haunted by it as well, I think. The social life within which civic friendship arises always involves expectations and assumptions, and to be robbed of those, or to be others ignore them, or to be called a fool for believing in them, is a properly angering thing. If even the model of Christian friendship which believers are called to can accommodate a moment of anger, a moment when the continued patient endurance of a flawed and perhaps even essentially already abandoned system seems both dehumanizing and wrong, then I don’t think I can use the notion of civic friendship to condemn anyone who chooses to call out evil as they see it. I guess I continue to hope that, should they choose to overturn tables, that they’ll do so in a civil way, if that even makes sense.

I know that I am a profoundly privileged person; I recognize that, though I also recognize that my articulation of that privilege — which mostly has to do with matters of sin and grace — likely does not operate the same as that which most of those who have engaged with intersectionality might assume. The point is, though, I know that I'm blessed and lucky, and that those blessings and that luck are significantly a function of my position in the various communities I am a member of. So having emphasized that I nonetheless say: my experiences with civic friendship, limited as they may be, have convinced me it's an accomplishable goal. Unlike many others (including my wife, and more than a few of my university colleagues who listened to the original version of this essay), I do not think I have lost any friends over the past four years. Maybe I have; it honestly wouldn't surprise me to learn that my privilege has blinded me to evils that have been done through my friendliness to people of radically different political views than me, my wishy-washy willingness to simultaneous call Trump-supporting friends desperately, even wickedly, wrong but also to continue to consider them a fellow community member. If that is true, then I need to repent — but of course, I need to repent all the time of basically everything anyway (as, I think, does everyone else). In the meantime, I continue to have hope that, beyond all my unseen failures, those community connections, even if only performative, will have some real civic meaning, and thus amount to a real, however small, civic accomplishment. Which, honestly, is just another way of expressing the same civic faith, the same hope for something unseen, which is nonetheless real, that I mentioned above, and that which Biden called out to in his victory speech as well. If I’m wrong, well, at least I have an Electoral College winner on my side.

Dr. Russell Arben Fox, Ph.D. is a Professor of Political Science at Friends University.

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